Excellent conversation, with a side of coffee and sambar vada, is what’s on offer at that most iconic of coffee houses of the country – The Indian Coffee House. With nearly 400 establishments spread across the country, the Indian Coffee House is a testament to the resilient spirit of mid-century modernism. Founded in the 1940s by the Coffee Board (a British Raj era committee), the original intent of the coffee houses was to promote a coffee drinking culture in India – no mean feat considering we were largely a tea drinking region. The Raj pushed this agenda for their own economic interests, but the coffee houses soon took a life of their own.
Stuart Freedman, an award-winning photojournalist, first found his way into an Indian Coffee House in 1994 when he wandered up the stairs to escape a very busy and crowded Connaught Place market, in New Delhi. Comforted by the constant buzz of multiple conversations over steaming cups of coffee and a calm terrace that overlooked the bustling city below, Freedman began frequenting the coffee house to seek solace in a city that did not quite feel like home yet. “The Indian Coffee House, which is this odd café atop a brutalist shopping centre, just seemed to me a bit of a refuge away from the strangeness of the streets of Delhi,” said Freedman in an interview with Roads And Kingdoms. “It just felt a bit like home. I was not living permanently in Delhi at the time, and it felt like somewhere I could always go back to, somewhere that was mine.”
In 2009 when Delhi’s Coffee House was facing a possible shutdown there were instant protests triggered across the region. Freedman couldn’t understand why this charming, but basically rundown cafe would elicit such a response from distinguished personalities from politics and India media. Freedman would soon learn that behind the modest exterior of the coffee house lay a rather glorious past of cultural significance. He then embarked on a journey to photograph and document the spaces, rickety tables and plastic chairs that hosted the likes of Satyajit Ray, former Prime Minister IK Gujral, Krishnamurthy (former Election Chief Commissioner of India); where beat poet Allen Ginsberg discussed literature with Malay Roychoudhary and Sunil Gangopadhyay.
Before 1947, the Coffee House had become a hotbed of the conversation focused on overthrowing the British Raj and was frequented by those rallying for an independent country. Post-independence, the Indian Coffee House carried forward its legacy of being the hub of social change, this time with a certain post-colonial optimism. “Within these places is the modern history of India. It’s very precious,” said Freedman. Coffee houses were a space of dialogue, activism, liberal discussions and meeting place of intellectuals and philosophers as they spent hours in a debate over cheap cups of coffee and cigarettes. It didn’t just serve the academics and intelligentsia, but also as a democratiser of people in a way, free of judgement.
Freedman stresses the fact that he doesn’t want to romanticize India like many others do – what he documented in the Indian Coffee Houses was neither exotic nor mystic. It was the everyday life of ordinary working class citizens unwinding over coffee and conversation. What struck him as extraordinary is how similar the environment was to coffee houses in London, or anywhere in the world for that matter. “As a young journalist, when I got to India, I expected to find a difference but I actually found similarity. We exoticize the developing world and actually, I think it’s better to try and find common ground. There’s something important about not seeing other people as fundamentally different. That’s not a way to understand things,” recalled Freedman in an interview.
The Indian Coffee House, with its chipped china, liveried waiters, and haphazard multi-cuisine menu, is reminiscent of a culture of cafes that seemed to have finally arrived in India — a congregation of radical minds for conversations on poetry, art, politics, and films. Though this glamour slowly faded as newer generations preferred the swankier Barista or Cafe Coffee Day or, more recently, Starbucks over the humble Indian Coffee House, the significance of this cultural and social hub of a bygone era isn’t lost on the country.
Between 2010 to 2015, Freedman travelled to over 10 cities to photograph over thirty of the most significant coffee houses in India. He would strike up conversations with the managers, waiters, and patrons — many of whom were regulars at the coffee house. This connection with its people allowed him to beautifully capture the essence of the place – a sanctuary for the tired, the overworked, and yet, the hopeful middle class of India. His travels and photographs culminated in his book, The Palaces of Memory—Tales from the Indian Coffee House. The book includes an introduction written by Amit Chaudhuri, a distinguished Indian novelist, poet, and essayist. Unwilling to come across as nostalgic or sentimental, Freedman points an impartial lens towards a period in time when a vast number of Indians from all socioeconomic backgrounds flocked to these coffee houses; for some, it was a place for change, while there were also those for whom a coffee house was just that—a place to get a cup of steaming hot coffee.
Stuart Freedman: The Palaces of Memory—Tales from the Indian Coffee House is part of Tasveer’s twelfth travelling exhibition, supported by Dauble, and will be on view at Bikaner House from 8th to 15th March. Alongside the exhibition, Tasveer has published a book which features photographs not exhibited along with a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri and an essay by Freedman. You can get the book here and visit the event page for more information.
Featured photograph ©Stuart Freedman, The Indian Coffee House, Kollam (now closed), 2013, C-type print; Courtesy Tasveer
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